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On Political Journalism and Political Science

- March 11, 2009

Henry asks us to discuss Matt Bai. Bai writes:

bq. Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

I’ve written on this topic here. What can I say in response to this quote from Bai? Like him, I can certainly hold forth on the limitations of political science. And, like him, I see value in collecting qualitative data — as in the conversation with three Iowans. But Bai is verging on pure anti-intellectualism here. Does he really think that there are no empirical regularities to politics? No generalizations that can be made? No hypotheses that can be tested with data? Really?

And his description of “politics” — “the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity” — sounds a lot like, well, life in general, not politics in particular. (It’s not my definition of politics either, but that’s a separate post.) So are other disciplines that attempt to explain human behavior — economics, sociology, psychology — equally fruitless? Should we abandon all systematic inquiry in favor of random conversations with whomever we run into on the street? Maybe I’m not being fair to Bai, but his opinion is pretty dismissive.

Political journalism would be improved with a bit more rigor and somewhat higher empirical standards. It needn’t mimic political science faithfully, but it should push in that direction — at least when it goes beyond simple reporting of the days events into something approaching analysis. I’ve discussed one of Bai’s other essays along these lines. Indeed, the passage above suggests the inherent problem with his approach:

bq. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

So something that is unreliable is still “illuminating”? Huh? And there’s a false dichotomy here between three Iowans and a dissertation — as if all academic research is a lengthy and boring dissertation and there are no political scientists writing and researching on topics of interest to Bai and doing their level best to make their work accessible.

Oh, and while we’re at it, can we dispense with the notion that academics are incapable of seeing “America?” Good Lord. As if there are no colleges and universities outside of San Francisco, New York, and Washington DC. And as if “America” somehow doesn’t include university communities.

Bai seems more interested in perpetuating hoary stereotypes than anything else.

Thanks for spoiling my morning, Henry.

[Update: After posting, I read the comment by b. Amen to that.]